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Posts posted by allenkelson

  1. Few people today realize what the Chicago dining scene was like, pre-Trotter. My wife and I do, having been influential dining critics for Chicago magazine when it was the city's primary source of unbiased dining information. With as many as over a million monthly readers, we were fortunate enough to cover a 20-year period that ran between truly basic ethnic Mom 'n' Pops places, the ending of haute cuisine (most bogus, some, such as the first Maxim's de Paris, were genuine), and the advent of la nouvelle cuisine , which reached its apex at Le Perroquet.

    Charlie — who began his career going kitchen-door-to-kitchen-door learning in some of the country's greatest restaurants, the field-testing his team by cooking gratis, superb multi-course dinners in the kitchens of family friends' North Shore homes, before opening his own place (half the size of the current one) seemed to surf just ahead of the cresting organic-food, locavore, and fusion fads. He shared with his guests meals by guest chefs from around the country, perhaps around the world.

    A visit to his Chicago restaurant (he had short-lived ventures elsewhere) was always an intellectual challenge and a stunning exhibition of quality equipment and intense concentration. He seemingly was always trying to reinvent the wheel, and often came up with interesting variants. A meal at Trotter's was like visiting a culinary museum (largely founded on French disciplines and techniques) that required eating all the exhibits, many of which provided gastronomic discovery (like a single plate combining wild hare and domestic rabbit).

    At Trotter\

    An early goal, which to my knowledge he adhered, was never to serve the same dish to a particular diner on two occasions.

    His food ideas — his was one of the first restaurants to feature, then mandate, dégustations — broadly influenced influencing many of the city's most creative chefs, several of whom worked at one time or another in his kitchen. He often enjoyed a full-service meal in a private dining room in his restaurant complex with more than a dozen local high-school students, exposing them to the possibilities of entering the profession at whatever levels they were capable. He was extraordinarily benevolent to local and national charities.

    His restaurant was one of the first to experiment with putting its servers on salary — after all, they are professionals, he reasoned — and when pooled tips didn't add up to his expectations, he made up the difference out of pocket.

    Did Charlie Trotter influence the current, local dining scene? I sure as hell hope so!

  2. Regrettably, the Spacca Napoli style, blistered and crispy, can't travel without getting soggy. I personally love the Lou Malnati thin-crust and deep dish (though Lou himself threatened once, literally, to shoot me after a less-than-stellar review in my magazine, Chicago).

    For a shorter trip and excellent thin-crust pizzas, I suggest you scoot to Pizzeria via Stato in the Embassy Suites between Ohio and Ontario on State. Ask chef David DiGregorio if their pies could be properly reconstituted on the rack of a highly preheated oven or a bread oven stone, if you have one.

    FYI, I don't like the fold-over NY style pizzas, save for their best's luscious underside charring, which Pizzeria via Stato's have.


  3. Yes, I like Sun Wah, too. It's one of the only places that serves the Peking (let's make that Beijing) duck with steamed buns — the usual in Beijing — rather than moo-shu pancakes, and they finish, as in China, with duck soup. Plus they carve the bird at the table. But their service is atrocious, the dining room staff so poorly trained the last time we had Beijing duck there, they brought out our soup with the carved duck, requiring two tables, but we had only one. It was full of food (as was a chair next to us because they rushed the meal out) and was no place to put it and its requisite bowls and spoons.

    Better service, controlled operations, and a more complete menu are to be found in Chinatown's more experienced Phoenix, an excellent restaurant with a large menu and many Chinese specials they'll describe for Anglos, though meant for "real" native customers.

    As with both, give 24 hours' notice (mandatory at Phoenix). I'd prefer to go to the latter any day for a less-chaotic experience, but Sun Wah's great for barbecued pig and duck carryout. Phoenix's greater percentage of Chinese patrons assures a more accurate, polished Chinese-restaurant experience overall.

    Sun Wah draws a large Anglo crowd, and many of its Asian customers are likely Hmong and Vietnamese. They have culinary treasures of their own, but are likely to be less demanding of an authentic Chinese dish.

  4. I think this is a really cool idea. About 30 years ago, my wife and I were the most-read legitimate restaurant critics in the city, with approximately a million readers of our monthly Chicago magazine columns. (Back then, the mag had 225K readers and an average pass-along of seven readers a copy. Ours was the most-read feature and we the most influential critics, for what that's worth. But that's another discussion.)

    I love the positivity of Des Rosier's outlook and, even though I wrote upwards of half a dozen pieces for Bon Appétit once I left Chicago, I went over to the other side, professionally telling restaurateurs how they could improve what they do, especially when it comes to establishing and meeting customers' expectations. I'll do the same for Inovasi, sans my usual bill, which is typically based on a sizable retainer, plus costs. The content of my notes will be seen only by him, and though he may want to discuss it (and how and where I think he may want to develop his work), I won't take him on as a client. He can post my comments if he chooses, as long as he leaves my name off.

    BTW, most critics haven't done their homework or had much experience. I think Des Rosier will get truly actionable comments mostly from chefs, servers, and others pros in the restaurant field.

  5. I'd sure push for L20 or TRU as possible get-in places. L20 is absolutely ingenious without being Cirque du Soleil showy; the flavors are the object and they're phenomenal. Both it and TRU tend to be overlooked, but I've had world-class meals and great service in both.

    For a traditional grand time (haute but modern) try Everest with Jean Joho in the kitchen and probably North America's best Alsatian wine discoveries.

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  6. Terrific, little-known place in Skokie (1/2 hr north of Loop) owned by Filipinos that make great ice cream with conventional and Philippine flavors, such as halo-halo, yams, various indiginous fruits. On Oakton St about 2 blocks east of Skokie Blvd.

  7. We locals refer to that "canal" as the Chicago River. Hot spots near your Hyatt include many that are now honoring "Chicago Restaurant Week", though it officially ended weeks ago. Great service, steaks, sides and stone-crab claws on a deal at Joe's Seafood, Prime Steaks & Stone Crab across from the Radisson on Rush. Lots of newish hot spots around, but for solid Chicago classics, check out an Italian beef sandwich for lunch at Mr. Beef on Orleans (order it "sweet and hot and soaked", which includes bell peppers stewed in beef jus, spicy giardiniara, and the whole sandwich dipped in jus). For the best deep-dish pizza, check out Lou Malnati's (I like the one on Wells) and try one of Rich Bayless's places. (If you go between 3-5, you'll probably be able to just walk right into his cheapest eatery, Xoco, selling street food.)

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  8. Been making, eating, and (I hope) improving on egg sandwiches for nigh on 60 years. Current evolution makes 'em faster, easier to eat, more complex than ever (for my tastes). Start by putting a pita or two in oven to puff. While that's going on, grate lots of sharp cheddar (usually Cabot, Black Diamond, or Tillamook — or best, raw milk farm cheddar), thinly slice sweet onion and maybe tomato, and grab mayo (even low-fat if being "responsible").

    Beat up eggs, scramble in hot pan with cheddar (I like 'em loose). Cut pita in half and spread mayo through opening. Spoon in egg, add onion (and tomato, and if you want, herbs or arugula) and stuff your face.

    Fast, easy, scrumptious, and pretty good. Vary flavors with additions of sesame seeds, chopped jalapeños, or whatever is handy. If you're young, a great respite after (or between) coitus. If you're more, ahem, matured, good when you're watching a late-night movie on TV and reminiscing about coitus...or not.


  9. 1. Where's the best place near the Mile to get Chicago pizza?  Hot dogs?  Italian beef?  I know these are stereotypical but I don't think I could leave without sampling them.

    2. What's the weather going to be like?  Roasting hot already?

    3. What's the/a typical Chicago breakfast item?  E.g. in Montreal, a bagel.  If there is such an item, where would I procure it?  If not, what's a good place to visit?  Hotel breakfasts are uniformly boring.

    4. Likewise for my morning coffee.  (Are there lunch counter type places still in Chicago, like in Toronto?  If so, one with good coffee would be a bonus, as I love the long counter and the stools...)

    Having been a Chicagoan born and bred for 60+ years, most of those in the food field, here are my thoughts. Best Chicago pizza: Lou Malnati's. One of the best Lou Malnati's stores is near your hotel, on North Wells St. My favorite in the Chicago genre: Deep-dish sausage and onion. (If you want the full Monty, order it with their "butter crust.") Weather's fine. Can't say re: breakfast; nothing extraordinary, though Chicagoans are fond of Walker Bros., local franchisees of Original Pancake House, which consistently uses top-quality ingredients and cooks them well. Best known for their oven-finished, caramelized cinnamon-apple pancakes which weigh in at more than 2000 calories apiece! (I prefer their Dutch Baby, a baked suet-free variation on Yorkshire pudding, served with powdered sugar and lemon wedges; or their Forty-niners — large, thin sourdough flapjacks with maple syrup.) A favorite morning spot is Lou Mitchell's, worth a visit though not earth-shaking. They make their own marmalade from the orange rinds left over from juicing. Coffee's good. Women get freebie Milk Duds, a tradition in this cheek-by-jowl place that bakes its own bread and — if I recall correctly — uses double-yolk eggs exclusively. Decent coffee (they make a big deal over filtering their water). And they have a serpentine counter and a long communal table. Located near the Loop and Union Station.

  10. I need a little help.  A friend of mine living in San Francisco is traveling on business, and will have a 4 hour layover in Chicago. 

    We thought it would be nice to meet up at a decent restaurant near O'Hare Airport to have a nice lunch, and play catch up.  However, neither one of us are familiar with the restaurants surrounding O'Hare.

    I welcome any restaurant suggestions.  Please note we do not want to "break the bank", but would like to have a very enjoyable experience. 

    Are we better off driving a little further into the city?

    Thanks in advance.


    The place I'd go to first is Carlucci, a good northern Italian spot with a very good chef. It's only about 5 minutes away, just outside the airport on River Road in Rosemont.

  11. In January New York magazine pointed out that "Laurent Gras, the talented chef best known here for his work at Peacock Alley...is launching an ambitious haute cuisine restaurant in Chicago, L20, and recently launched a blog detailing the process: the how and why of the butter program, the bread, even the very wood of the place. It’s a fascinating view of how one of the country’s top chefs thinks about creating a restaurant, told in the first person."

    I've been following the blog, which at first seemed quirky, but I now see as often insightful and entertaining at its worst; I look forward to seeing a post from it in my email almost daily. I've been fortunate enough to have tasted a few tastings of Gras's phenomenal creations ("cooking" isn't always an apt term for his food), and I'm convinced his work here will become one of the city's defining culinary accomplishments. His food is often witty, frequently ingenious, and sometimes pathbreaking, but it always begins with an underlying sensibility about gastronomic satisfaction, rather than mere showmanship.

    Just to keep the record straight, L.2o is associated with Lettuce Entertain You. After I retired as a restaurant critic, I became a consultant to Lettuce, among others, and that's how I first came in contact with Gras's work: Till his new kitchen is ready, his atelier has been at Tru. I'm recommending his blog to my fellow eGulleteers not because I'm a flack for the operation — I definitely am not — but because I've learned so much from it, despite having spent 30+ years in the culinary field.

    I never know what I'll find in his blog. One day he writes about commuting by bicycle; another time it's about the wood on his as-yet unbuilt walls. Last week he wrote about toro so fat it melted at room temperature; yesterday it was the flesh and skin of variegated lemons. The blog has told readers why he insists on churning butter himself, but he's also experimenting with — and running readers' thoughts on — freeze-drying.

    Not even his routines are routine! Today he talks about the "greens database" he's put together for produce ordering, staff training, and recipe development. The installment is at http://www.l2o.typepad.com/.

  12. I wonder, is there a bun supplier that dominates the market the way Vienna Beef does? Presumably nobody is baking buns on premises, so they have to come from somewhere.

    Yes, indeed, there's a bun supplier. Most places with good dogs get theirs from Alpha Baking, which incorporated Mary Ann buns and also Rosen's Rye, both long-time Chicago institutions. The bun should never be crusty, and most have poppy seeds. They are always steamed--squishy but not soggy--in the best places. Ideally, the dog protrude slightly.

    Dogs are usually Vienna, but several makers, including one in southern Wisconsin, have done a pretty good job of knocking off the formula. One, Eisenstein, even bears the name of Vienna's founders. Dogs vary in size, typically from 12 to the pound to four to the pound.

  13. I'll be in Chicago (the Hilton downtown) December 3-5 (Monday-Wednesday).  I've got a few questions:

    1.  Will we need reservations for Frontera Grill for lunch (3 people)?

    2.  Is it worth eating at Frontera Grill for both lunch and dinner (are the menus sufficiently different)?  My GF's boss says he loves the place and he's pretty discriminating.  It's also not super expensive so I don't have a problem eating there twice although I do if it's all the same stuff.

    3.  I'll be on my own for two lunches.  Any must eats (Chicago dogs or Italian beef)?  Can you suggest a place walking distance from the Miracle Mile?

    4.  Any other suggestions for moderate (~$50 pp not including alcohol) dinners?  My GF is German so we'd be interested in a German place or some place with local flavor.  Again, walking distance from the Hilton preferred.  She is not a big fan of Asian food but anything else will fly.

    Thanks so much.

    I don't think you can make resos for Frontera, but yes, it's worth going! Go early, if you can. Superb chile rellenos, which run out early. For dinner, try the other side, Topolobampo for more imaginative dishes in an upscale but "genuine" idiom. Or try Nacional 27, a pan-Hispanic place with great fresh food and creative mixology.

    Though it's big and commercial as all getout, excellent Chicago dogs can be had at any of the Portillo's; downtown there's one on Ontario & Clark or Dearborn. (Remember: NO KETCHUP. I prefer mustard, relish, onions, tomato, peppers, pickle.)

    My favorite Italian beef is at Al's on Orleans Street; get it "soaked" with "both peppers" (bell and giardiniera). It's as good as it gets and very consistent.

    For great deep dish pizza in the same locale, hit Lou Malnati's on Wells Street (a block or two from Frontera). I like the deep dish sausage and onion. (Thin crust is also good.)

    There are a bazillion downtown Hiltons--or several, anyhow. No good German places I know of near any of them. But you won't have any difficulty eating very well at under $50 a head, sans booze.

  14. In order to make this journey as simple as possible, I'm asking for your help.

    I am looking for a collection of Chicago's best cocktail and wine bars. I don't really care about a trendy scene, cool music, or anything like that. What I'm looking for is crafted drinks and a knowledgeable staff that can shepherd me on my journey.

    Do such establishments exist in Chicago?

    Beer and wine are just fine: buy and store sensibly, open, pour into the right glass. For "crafted drinks and a knowledgeable staff," though, there are few if any places that combine fresh, interesting, thoughtfully chosen foodstuffs with alcohol as well as Nacional 27 at Orleans and Huron. Their mixologist has a level of expertise you just won't find elsewhere, while their chef haunts the Green Market for fresh and brings in exotica from Latin America. The combination yields great drinking that stimulates the mind as well as the tastebuds.

  15. You can also buy "local" meats just east of Lake Geneva on WI 50 at Lake Geneva Meats (take I-94/US 41 to WI 50) about an hour's drive from the North Side. There you can get local pork, beef, and buffalo. Just east of them there's a mushroom farm with some interesting pickings, and just east of them, a pick-your-own berry farm, all on WI 50.

    Googling, making phone calls, asking around has led me nowhere.  Do I need to drive to Wisconsin and buy in bulk?  I'd be ok with that, but still need a recommendation.
  16. I'm traveling on business in a month to two of our locations (one in Pewaukee and the other in Waukesha).  I'll be staying for two nights right off 94 and Pewaukee Road.  I know of Kopp's, and there is one not far away in Brookfield.

    Where else that isn't a national franchise?  BYO-firendly would be great.  I like neighborhood places, hidden gems, and food-lovers' focus over atmosphere and expense account places.  I will have a car.

    Two--no, three--places for you to hit.

    1. Sanford also owns another restaurant in the Third Ward, with its own attached bakery. It's a lovely little bistro called Coquette; definitely good enough for a refined, relaxed dinner, but also good for lunch.

    2. The best frozen custard in Wisconsin is at a slightly tumbledown drive in called Leon's, on the southwest side of town. Definitely worth a trip. Eat in your car. Have a turtle sundae (not on the menu).

    3. Great burgers and loads of old-time neighborhood sports bar (NOT Champps-style) at Fourth Base. They have lots of toney options more t ypical of white-tablecloth spots. Go for the burgers; reasonable, reliable, and way better than most places, big city or not.

    (FYI, we go to these places after a 90-minute trip from Chicago...and we've been "serious" professional diners for 35 years; these are really worth a visit if you're near Milwaukee.)

  17. I've been going to Riviera for sausage, cheese and everything else Italian for years.  Cosa Nostra bakery used to be right around the corner but it is now closed.  Their bread was phenomenal!  Does anyone know if they are completely out of business or just relocated?


    I don't know where they went, but yes, they did bake very good bread. Their correct name, by the way, was CASA Nostra. One has to do with breaking bread, the other with breaking legs.

  18. Hey! You missed MY favorites, and they're right in the neighborhood. Pasta Fresh @ 3418 N. Harlem is great for arancine, lasagne (I like their vegetarian lasagna), and a gazillion kinds of ravioli. They do a pretty big volume making stuff in quantity for restaurants, but always have a selection of pasta and sauces in a case for walk-ins. They also make calzone.

    Adjacent is a fine deli (Gino's, I think) that has some good buys in cheese and a huge selection of dried pasta including Italian artisanal shapes and what must be the entire De Cecco line, among others. Lots of oil, 3-year old Reggiano Parmigiano for something like $16/pound ($12 for 2 year old), and freshly made sausages, among other things. (Specialty: Barese sausage.)

  19. As of today, there are at least 46 restaurants in Chicago that serve foie gras as the main ingredient in a dish. Some places serve two or three (Kiki's Bistro is the winner here) different dishes of this rich delicacy. Following is just a short list of restaurants that have foie on their menu (via Chicago Menu Pages).


    -Foie Gras (hibiscus, licorice, blueberry soda)


    -Foie Gras "two Styles" (seared with brasied rhubarb, strawberry-lavender saucetorchon and sourdough croutons)

    -Seared Sea Scallops with Lemon and Gray Salt (layered with foie gras, cauliflower puree and apple jus)


    -Candycane Crusted Foie Gras (salted ceramel corn, gingerbread powder,eggnog ice cream)

    -Foie (popcorn, spice,eggnog)


    -Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras (with pain perdu, huckelberries, and bartlett pears)

    Custom House

    -Foie Gras (walnut & cranberry pesto, warm pumpkin bread)


    -Foie Gras Torchon (house made with caramelized granny smith apple, walnut salad and vanilla-tapioca sauce)

    -Madako Kimo (monkfish foie gras wrapped with octopus in a house ponzu sauce)

    Kiki's Bistro

    -Päté De Foie De Canard (Duck liver päté with Toasted Brioche)

    -Terrine De Foie Gras (with Fris?e - Walnut Dressing)

    -Foie De Veau (Sautéed Calf's Liver with Pearl Onions and Red Cabbage served with a Wine Vinegar Sauce)

    Les Nomades

    -Sautéed Foie Gras, Caramelized Pineapple, Marcona Almonds, Sauternes Gelée, and Vanilla Clementine Sauce

    -Poached Beef Tournedos Rossini, Seared Foie Gras Medallion, Potato Purée and Sauce Périgueux


    -Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Rhubarb-strawberry "tarte Tatin", Organic Crimson Raisins and Minus 8 Ice Vinegar

    -Whole Roasted Ranch Squab and Foie Gras (with Black Mission Figs and Thompson Grapes, Cipollini Onions and Green Peppercorns)


    -Creme Brulee of Hudson Valley Foie Gras (crisp hazelnuts and poppy seeds, toasted brioche)

    -Milk-Fed Veal Tenderloin (crispy sweetbreads, hudson valley foie gras, glazed zitoni pasta, parmesan cappuccino)


    -Foie Gras Mousseline (pineapple quice, chamomile & toasted brioche)

    Sweets & Savories

    -Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras (Roasted Pineapple, Savory Chocolate Glaze)

    -Hamburger (Strube Ranch American Kobe Beef with Foie Gras Pate and Truffled Mayonnaise, Toasted Brioche Roll)


    -Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras (Summer Corn Blini, Salad of Roasted Corn, Mäche, Fried Shallots)

    -Roasted Atlantic Striped Bass (Sautéed Hudson Valley Foie Gras, English Pea Spaetzle, Foie Gras Consommé)


    -Foie Gras (pan seared canadian foie gras served over caramelized sweet potato with truffled marshmallow)

    -Duck, Duck, Goose (a playful mixed grilling of three different preparations, seared breast sliced medium rare, crispy leg confit potstickers and quickly seared foie gras, finished with baby bok choy and a hot and sour duck broth)


    -Cured Foie Gras (pineapple, Thai chilis)

    That's an impressive list--and good digging on your part--but I suspect it's just the tip of the lobe. Lots--if not most--of the places serving foie gras have it on their specials lists. (For one thing, it helps to hide the high price. It also aids in clearing out a perishable.) If we knew of them all--or the menu pages included the "marginal" places that often sell f.g.--it might start looking like a staple. (But probably under 10% of those city council members have knowingly tasted it.) Carlos', in Highland Park, probably has it daily, for example.

    Anyhow, their ordinance will probably be found unconstitutional, but another nail will be in the foie gras coffin. The outcome we all should hope for, of course, is that a more acceptable way of creating the stuff will be developed because it's too profitable for the producers and too irresistable for the consumers.

    I'd rather see them do something about chickens and eggs, but that probably hits too close to home for council members--if they knew of the issues--to be motivated.

  20. OK, I am ready to get slammed but here I go.

      Is the premium designation based on Kurtis' fame or is the beef really that special?

    I enjoy grass-fed beef but I'm not sure I like it better than standard-issue, prime, aged beef.

    Grass-fed is considered to be more ecologically friendly, so I do applaud Mr. Kurtis for putting his bucks behind something in which he believes.


    Alas and alack, it goes deeper and further than that, sorry to say ('cause I like the taste of corn-fed). Cattle, being ruminants, are "designed" to live off grass. Grass doesn't supply all the nutrients needed to sustain them, however, so their gut harbors bacteria that do the rest of the nourishing. Take cattle off grass and put them on corn, as feed lots do, and they get sick. The bacteria don't get or supply what they have to to keep the cattle healthy. So the sick, fattening beeves get medicated. All this affects their flesh, of course, which affects you--who is "designed" to eat grass-fed ruminants. Not a few people think this is why corn-fed beef pumps up our "bad cholesterol" and does other nasty things to us. Probably affects milk, too.

    Read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and weep.

    BTW, beef is more carcinogenous the more it's cooked beyond medium rare, so whatever it is, learn to love it less brown. (Don't we all?) :cool:

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